The History of Return Day
Although the date of the first RETURN DAY in Georgetown is uncertain, it could have been as early as 1792. The State Law in 1791 removing the County seat from Lewes along the Coast to the a more geographically centered site, later named Georgetown, required all votes to be cast in the new County Seat on election day. The same voters would "return" two days later to hear the results - hence the name RETURN DAY. In 1811, voting districts in the individual hundreds were established, but the Board of Canvassers presided over by the Sheriff would still meet two days later in Georgetown to announce the final tally.
History of the Ox Roast
According to the HISTORY OF DELAWARE by J. Thomas Sharff written in 1888, RETURN DAY was "one of the customs peculiar to the people of Sussex, from time immemorial,..holding a high carnival on the day when the results of the election are announced" "Booths, stalls and stands are erected near the courthouse, where all kinds of edibles, such as opossum and rabbit meat, fish and oysters, can be procured. The women, who constitute a considerable portion of the crowd, are generously treated to cakes, candies and the best the booths afford." In the tradition of the 19th century booths, OX ROAST SANDWICHES fresh from an all night open pit barbecue are distributed to the throngs attending RETURN DAY at no charge.
“Return Day in Delaware” Excerpts from a New York Tribune article dated: Georgetown DE November 10, 1860
(Earliest known newspaper article about Return Day known to exist, from the “Georgetown collection” of Jim Bowden.)
“The carnival obtains a degree of importance in Catholic countries, and festivals, anniversaries and gala-days, invested with interest, are celebrated in nearly all regions with distinctive features, to give character to the display in each locality; but none of these commemorative occasions, probably, are more eminently marked with a peculiar cast than is “Return Day” in old Sussex .... Known only here, it has become an institution of the county, and is inseparably connected with its history; it is essentially the big day, and cannot be approximated, in point of interest for numbers and notoriety, by any other. At early morn of the day on which Georgetown is to become the Mecca of citizens from every section of the country, persons begin to invade the town.
The impression left upon the mind of one who had for the first time witnessed Return Day in Sussex, if not unqualifiedly agreeable in every particular, would be enduring.”
Quote from the Easton Md. Gazette November 8th 1878
John M. Clayton, Delaware U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of State in President Taylor's administration once said of Return Day “that the man who had been to a political meeting in Dagsboro, seen Return Day in Georgetown and visited Paris had witnessed the three most interesting sights in the world!
"It is just possible that Paris may furnish more splendid opportunities for the satisfaction of the aesthetic tastes, but I doubt if anywhere else there can be found such an opportunity for observing curious types of a peculiar people as at the Sussex County seat on election Return Day. The congregation of people from all parts of the county on such occasions is probably a relict of the English customs, where the supporters and constituents of the Parliamentarian candidates assemble at the county seat to learn the result of the contest. It was, and is, I believe the custom of these times for the member elect to entertain the people with feasts and music."
Provided by Jim Bowden, Return Day Vice President & President of the Georgetown Historical Society.